Wednesday, September 19, 2007
We Bring You This Class War, Already in Progress ...
John Fox of the Seattle Displacement Coalition is losing it these days. When he gets to talking about condo conversions and housing demolition in Seattle, his face darkens by several shades, the veins in his forehead and throat stick out, and his voice jumps a full octave. Seattle is losing low-income housing about twice as fast as it’s being built, and it really pisses him off. In the 30 years he’s been fighting for housing, things have never been worse.
Meanwhile, we’re supposed to be “ending homelessness.” It’s a bitter irony.
We’re losing, and it’s all about political will.
Today, I attended the Seventh Annual Interfaith Task Force conference on Building the Political Will to End Homelessness. I’ve been to several of these things, and while I want to be supportive of my allies, it looked like the smallest one yet.
On the way there, I stopped for breakfast at the Westin Hotel. There, roughly three times as many developers, bankers, non-profit housing providers, city officials and others paid $65 each to hear J. Ronald Terwilliger — the CEO of Trammell Crow Residential and the chairperson-elect of Habitat for Humanity — make the business case for providing workforce housing in Seattle.
There were dozens of corporate sponsors. It’s amazing how the rich will line up to fork over money to the rich when it’s in their interest to do so. I showed up dressed as I always do. My long-sleeved green thermal T-shirt stood out in the room of about 250 suits.
Terwilliger is a man who, a few years ago, was tragically edged out by Time Warner in his bid to buy the Atlanta Braves. Terwilliger is Donald Trump lite, but with better hair, and has what, in his circles, passes for a full-blown social conscience.
An affluent society such as ours, he said, needs to provide housing for those who attend to our needs. Otherwise, various problems such as traffic congestion and pollution, low workforce morale, and a tougher hiring environment for corporations undermine the region’s ability to compete.
While Trammell Crow is very active in Seattle, and Terwilliger’s heart is with affordable housing, his pocketbook has other opinions. All of their projects involve luxury condos and apartments. There is no market incentive, he said, for them to build workforce housing in this city. In Seattle, Terwilliger would define that as housing for those who make up to 150 percent of median income. That’s somewhere above $90,000 annually.
Let me repeat that. There’s no incentive in Seattle, he said, for developers to build housing for people who make less that $90,000 annually.
To do that, Terwilliger would need code relaxations, tax breaks, and zoning incentives. Do this, he said, and people like him will be able to make the sort of profit they expect building the sort of housing we need. The economy will then hum like a new Lexus.
This morning’s gathering at the Westin might well have been called, “Building the political will to help developers make maximum or near-maximum profit while servicing a corporate-friendly market niche.”
Maybe someone else can come up with more elegant title.
Making as much money as you possibly can isn’t just a job. It’s a way of life. And, make no mistake, the wealthy in this country have successfully pursued “structural change.” They can never get enough of it.
Down I-5 a ways, at Grace Lutheran Church in Des Moines, today’s other gathering to build political will was a much more relaxed affair. They had no corporate sponsorship. They were, however, much more comfortably dressed.
The activists and church members gathered in Des Moines do what they do with minimal resources. They’re good people who are working to make a difference. But most of their efforts are directed toward charity and good works. That whole structural change thing is a bit of an afterthought, and there’s no real funding for it anyway.
This, in a nutshell, is the problem. It’s why John Fox looks like he’s about to have an aneurysm, and it’s why we’re losing.
Downtown social worker Joe Martin challenged the attendees to “inconvenience themselves in the cause of justice.” He called us to embrace a sense of the sacred that rejects an increasingly dehumanized future and engages in a fight for justice as though something real were at stake. It was an amazing, moving, radical speech, and I hope we get to reprint it sometime.
The audience clapped politely, and then ran toward the barricades. No, they didn’t. They ate lunch. And life went on as before.